Chapter 35 - Initial Study and Negative Declaration

What Does This Topic Include?

This chapter discusses the preparation and processing of a CEQA Initial Study and Negative Declaration.

Laws, Regulations and Guidance

See also Chapter 2 - State Requirements 

Policy Memos

Types of Agencies Under CEQA

A Lead Agency is the public agency that has the principal responsibility for carrying out or approving a project. Caltrans is the lead agency for its own projects. Caltrans may also be lead agency for private projects that require Caltrans approval, for example, a private telecommunications company proposing to install equipment within Caltrans’ right-of-way.

A responsible agency is any public agency other than Caltrans that has discretionary approval power over the project. A trustee agency means a state agency having jurisdiction by law over natural resources affected by a project that are held in trust for the people of the State of California. Trustee agencies include:

  1. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife with regard to the fish and wildlife of the state, to designated rare or endangered native plants, and to game refuges, ecological reserves, and other areas administered by the department;
  2. The State Lands Commission with regard to state owned "sovereign" lands such as the beds of navigable waters and state school lands;
  3. The State Department of Parks and Recreation with regard to units of the State Park System;
  4. The University of California with regard to sites within the Natural Land and Water Reserves System.

Common examples of responsible agencies include: the Regional Water Quality Control Board for its Section 401 Water Quality Certification, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for its Section 1602 Lake or Streambed Alternation Agreement, and the Office of Historic Preservation for its concurrence on affected cultural resources.

Caltrans can also be a responsible agency for non-Caltrans projects that impact Caltrans’ facilities, for example, where a city will need to obtain an encroachment permit for conducting work within Caltrans’ right-of-way.

Responsible agencies must actively participate in the lead agency’s CEQA process and consider the lead agency’s environmental document prior to acting upon or approving the project. The responsible agency must certify that it reviewed and considered the information contained in the lead agency’s CEQA document. The responsible agency must also prepare and issue its own findings regarding the project.

Generally, a responsible agency must accept the lead agency’s environmental document as legally adequate. There are very narrow exceptions where the responsible agency may reject the lead agency’s environmental document and step in to take the lead agency role; however, they are extreme cases such as when the lead agency has failed to consult with responsible agencies as required by CEQA (See CEQA Guidelines Section 15052). Therefore, responsible agencies must participate early and actively in the lead agency’s CEQA process to ensure its concerns are met.

Definition and Purpose of an Initial Study

An Initial Study (IS) is a preliminary analysis which is prepared to determine the relative environmental impacts associated with a proposed project. It is designed as a measuring mechanism to determine if a project will have a significant adverse effect on the environment, thereby triggering the need to prepare a full environmental Impact Report (EIR). It also functions as an evidentiary document containing information which supports conclusions that the project will not have a significant environmental impact or that the impacts can be mitigated to a “Less Than Significant” or “No Impact” level.

If there is no substantial evidence, in light of the whole record before the agency, that the project may have a significant effect on the environment, the agency shall prepare a Negative Declaration (ND). If the IS identifies potentially significant effects, but: (1) revisions in the project plans or proposals would avoid the effects or mitigate the effects to a point where clearly no significant effects would occur, and (2) there is no substantial evidence, in light of the whole record before the agency, that the project as revised may have a significant effect on the environment, then a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) shall be prepared.

Early Consultation

Once it is determined to prepare an initial study, the lead agency must consult with all responsible agencies and trustee agencies responsible for resources affected by the project. Coordination should take place at the earliest appropriate time with all local, regional, state and federal agencies having jurisdictional authority over the project. At this stage of the process, the significant environmental issues should be identified to facilitate assessing the potential impact of the proposed project. Upon request, the Office of Planning and Research (OPR), State Clearinghouse, will assist the District Office in determining the various responsible agencies for a proposed project.

Public Participation and Public Notice

Public participation is considered an essential part of the CEQA process and reflects a belief that citizens can make important contributions to environmental protections and notions of balanced decision-making through wide public involvement. CEQA does not require formal hearings at any stage of the environmental review process for an IS. However, CEQA does require public notice of the intent to adopt a ND or MND. See the Notice of Intent to Adopt a ND or MND section below for instructions. If a public meeting or hearing is held for the project, notices of such meetings (typically included in the Notice of Intent) must be posted on the appropriate Caltrans district/project website.

Preparing an Initial Study

Although the CEQA Guidelines do not dictate the precise format required for an initial study, certain information is required and is considered fundamental to analyzing the potential impacts associated with a proposed project, an initial study must contain the following [CCR Title 14, Section 15063]:

  • Information identifying the project’s environmental effects, if any, by use of a checklist, matrix, or other method, provided that entries on a checklist or other form are briefly explained to indicate that there is some evidence to support the entries. The brief explanation may be either through a narrative or reference to another information source such as an attached map, photographs, or an earlier EIR or negative declaration. A reference to another document should include a citation to the page or pages where the information is found.
  • A discussion of the ways to mitigate the significant effects identified, if any,
  • An examination of whether the project would be consistent with existing zoning, plans, and other applicable land use controls; and
  • The name of the person or persons who prepared or participated in the initial study.

Project Description

The Project Description performs as a type of road map providing information which characterizes the project’s goals and objectives. It’s intended to describe the project providing sufficient detail to set forth the baseline of information for use as a foundation in analyzing the specific media components later in the document. The project description should describe the project’s activities, identify and discuss any jurisdictional issues relating to project commencement such as the acquisition of applicable permits, project duration, location and a listing of related environmental review and consultation requirements mandated by federal, state or local laws, regulations or policies [CCR Title 14, Section 15124]. Additionally, the project description should include an attachment of site, regional and vicinity maps to give the reader a sense of geographical location respecting the project site and its surroundings.

Environmental Effects

The lead agency must undertake a reasonable investigation of potential impacts when it prepares an Initial Study. The Initial Study checklist must be completed, and each answer must include a fact-based explanation. The discussion will normally include the following information:

  • Description of the affected resource.
  • Technical report(s) on which the information is based.
  • Statutory or regulatory standards for evaluating level or severity of impacts.
  • Criteria of impact evaluation where no statutory or regulatory standard is established.
  • Any consultation or regulatory reviews undertaken and their outcome.

For each resource, the Initial Study must address a number of impact types:

  • long-term impacts (the project and its operation)
  • short-term construction-related impacts
  • direct and indirect impacts
  • cumulative impacts 

If the Initial Study determines that there will be no significant direct or indirect impact on the environment, prepare a Negative Declaration.

If the Initial Study determines that the proposed action, with the incorporation of identified mitigation measures, will not have a significant effect on the environment, prepare a Mitigated Negative Declaration.

If the Initial Study concludes that there may be significant direct or indirect impact on the environment, after mitigation, an Environmental Impact Report is required.

For more specific discussion and guidance on assessing potential impacts of a proposed project, consult specific environmental resource chapters (Chapters 7 through 28) on the SER.

Mitigation Measures

When significant environmental effects are identified, the Lead Agency will propose feasible mitigation measures to address each adverse effect. Under CEQA, mitigation measures may include the following:

  • Avoid
  • Minimize
  • Rectify (repair, rehabilitate, or restore)
  • Reduce or eliminate the impact over time by preservation and maintenance during the life of the action
  • Compensate, replace, create.

For additional information, see the Mitigation under CEQA guidance.

As noted above, under “Environmental Effects,” a public agency (the Caltrans District environmental office) will prepare a Negative Declaration (ND) when:

  • The Initial Study shows that there is no substantial evidence, in light of the whole record before the agency, that the project may have a significant effect on the environment.

Or a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) when,

  • The initial study identifies potentially significant effects but:
    • Revisions in the project plans or proposals made by, or agreed to by the applicant before a proposed mitigated negative declaration and initial study are released for public review would avoid the effects or mitigate the effects to a point where clearly no significant effects would occur; and,
    • There is no substantial evidence, in light of the whole record before the agency, that the project as revised may have a significant effect on the environment.

When adopting an MND, the Caltrans District Office adopts a reporting or monitoring program for the changes made to the project. The reporting or monitoring program is designed to ensure compliance during project implementation.

A tool that is available to ensure that environmental commitments are fulfilled in the post-PA&ED phase is the PS&E Tool. The SER provides guidance (with examples) on the Environmental Commitment Record.

Circulation of "Draft" Initial Study

When the “draft” Initial Study is complete, it must be circulated for public review. Before the “draft” Initial Study can be circulated, the Draft Project Report (or equivalent design report) must be approved. This is to ensure that the project concept in the draft environmental document is consistent with the draft design report. The public is informed of the review period with a Notice of Intent (see next section).

Notice of Intent to Adopt a Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration

The Office of Planning and Research, State Clearinghouse review of a Negative Declaration (ND) or Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) with accompanying Initial Study is required when a state agency such as Caltrans is the Lead Agency, a Responsible Agency, a Trustee Agency, or otherwise has jurisdiction by law over a project.

When Caltrans approves a proposed ND or MND and Initial Study for public circulation, the draft document, Notice of Completion (NOC), Notice of Intent (NOI), and OPR Summary Form are submitted to the State Clearinghouse via CEQA Submit. Please see the State Clearinghouse CEQA Document Submission website for full instructions, forms, and a link to the CEQA Submit Database.  The NOC, NOI, and draft document must also be posted on the appropriate Caltrans district/project website.

When a “draft” Initial Study is submitted to the State Clearinghouse for distribution, the State Clearinghouse will assign a SCH number to the document. All future correspondence with the State Clearinghouse should reference this number.

When a proposed ND or MND have been submitted to the State Clearinghouse, the review period is not less than 30 calendar days. 

Caltrans must provide a NOI to adopt an ND or MND to the public, responsible agencies, trustee agencies, and the county clerk of each county in which the proposed project is located, sufficiently prior to adoption by the lead agency of the ND or MND to allow the public and agencies the 30 day review period.

For a project of statewide, regional, or areawide significance, the lead agency shall also provide notice to transportation planning agencies and public agencies which have transportation facilities within their jurisdictions which could be affected by the project. "Transportation facilities" includes: major local arterials and public transit within five miles of the project site, and freeways, highways and rail transit service within 10 miles of the project site. Lead agencies should also consult with public transit agencies with facilities within one-half mile of the proposed project.

Caltrans must mail the NOI to the last known name and address of all organizations and individuals who have previously requested such notice in writing and must also provide an NOI through at least one of the following procedures to allow the public a 30 calendar day review period:

  1. Publication at least one time in a newspaper of general circulation in the area affected by the proposed project. If more than one area is affected, the notice must be published in the newspaper of largest circulation from among the newspapers of general circulation in those areas.
  2. Posting of notice on and off site in the area where the project is to be located.
  3. Direct mailing to the owners and occupants of contiguous property shown on the latest equalized assessment roll.

As a matter of Caltrans policy, the NOI to Adopt an ND or MND must be published in the local paper.

The NOI includes the following information:

To avoid expense and duplication of effort, the Notice of Intent to adopt a Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration is combined with the Notice of Public Hearing or Notice of Opportunity into one notice.

Chapter 11, Article 2 and Appendix HH of the Project Development Procedures Manual provides detailed information on the format and publication of these notices.
  • A brief description of the proposed project and its location.
  • The starting and ending dates for the review period during which the Lead Agency will receive comments on the proposed ND or MND. This shall include starting and ending dates for the review period. If the review period has been shortened pursuant to Section 15105 of the CEQA Guidelines, the notice shall include a statement to that effect.
  • The date, time, and place of any scheduled public meetings or hearings to be held by the Lead Agency on the proposed project, when known at the time of notice.
  • The address or addresses where copies of the proposed ND or MND and all documents incorporated by reference in the proposed ND or MND are available for review. This location or locations must be readily accessible to the public during the lead agency’s normal working hours.
  • A description of how the ND or MND shall be provided in electronic format. (Added by AB 209, Statutes of 2011, which expanded Public Resources Code Section 21092(b)(1) to include this requirement.)
  • The presence of the site on any list of hazardous waste facilities, land designated as hazardous waste property, and hazardous waste disposal sites, and the information in the Hazardous Waste and Substances Statement required under Government Code, Section 65962.5 (f).
  • Other information specifically required by statute or regulation for a particular project or type of project.

To make copies of the document available to the general public, copies of the “draft” Initial Study and technical reports must be provided to readily accessible locations, such as schools, community centers or libraries, serving the area involved. Note: not all portions of the cultural studies documents are available for public review. Copies must also be available in District/Region office and the environmental document must be posted on the appropriate Caltrans district/project website. 

It is appropriate to charge for duplicating costs when members of the public request multiple copies of the document or when requests come from members of the public residing outside the project area. The same criteria can be used for technical reports.

Opportunity for Public Hearing or Public Hearing

Public hearings are encouraged, but not required as an element of the IS/ND process. However, the Project Development Procedures Manual (PDPM) requires a public hearing for any projects that:

  1. Require significant right of way
  2. Require substantial changes to the layout, or to the function of connecting roadways, or facility being improved,
  3. Have a significant adverse impact on abutting real property, or
  4. Have a significant environmental, economic, social, or other effect.

A "Notice of Opportunity" for a public hearing may be used to satisfy the requirement for a hearing if the project is non-controversial and a hearing request is unlikely. This can be determined by analysis of comments received from the public or local agencies or through prior contacts and information meetings.

Chapter 11, Article 7 of the PDPM includes a discussion of how to plan, prepare and conduct a public hearing.  

Notice of the public hearing must be published in English in a newspaper having a general circulation in the vicinity of the proposed project, as well as in any foreign language and community newspapers with a substantial circulation in the area. Each notice must be published in a prominent location in the newspaper other than in the legal notices section and be published twice before the public hearing.  The notice must also be posted on the appropriate Caltrans district/project website.

Revisions to "Draft" Initial Study

After public circulation, revisions to the body of the “draft” IS will be made only when substantive comments bring to light new information not covered or when it is necessary to correct the text. A log of the comments and the responses to them is prepared to facilitate the review. The State Clearinghouse number shall be added to the upper right corner of the ND or MND. The ND or MND will be signed and placed in the front of the document (after the title sheet).

  • Environmental Commitments/Mitigation Measures. Each “final” IS must include, as an added separate section, a summary of all avoidance, minimization, and/or mitigation measures, including prescribed environmentally sensitive areas (ESA), and any other conditions for which there is a commitment in previous sections of the document.
  • Public Participation. A brief summary of the review process including public information meeting(s) and/or public hearing (if held) shall be added to the IS. This summary, as well as copies of the comments and responses on the “draft” IS, are added to the Comments and Coordination section of the document.
  • Wetlands or Floodplain. If the proposed project is a federal action and is located in wetlands and/or encroaches on a floodplain, a Wetlands Only Practicable Alternative Finding and/or a Floodplain Only Practicable Alternative Finding must be added to the “final” IS.
  • Section 106. If the proposed project is a federal action and involves cultural resources, the revised IS shall include discussion as to the final disposition of Section 106 matters. For findings of No Historic Properties Affected or No Adverse Effect, the Section 106 Programmatic Agreement may be used to streamline the coordination process. For projects with a Finding of Adverse Effect, a copy of the executed memorandum of agreement prepared to resolve those effects must be included.
  • See the appropriate annotated outline for additional guidance.

QA/QC Review of Final Initial Study

The final IS with the Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration should follow the same QA/QC review process outlined in the QA/QC Review section below. Following the QA/QC review, the district will need to revise the final IS as necessary to resolve any conflicting comments or other issues.
 
For the final IS, both the title sheet and the Negative Declaration (ND) or Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) are signed and incorporated into the document after the title sheet. The final IS becomes part of the Project Report. Once the Project Report is assembled it is submitted to the District Director (or designee) for signature.

Circulation Requirements for ND or MND

The “final” IS with a signed ND or MND is referred to as an ND or MND and completes the process for an IS. CEQA does not require public circulation of the ND or MND. It is encouraged, however, for agencies, organizations and individuals that commented on the “draft” IS to be supplied with a copy of the with ND or MND (or location where it can be obtained) and be informed of the disposition of their comments.

Recirculation

A lead agency is required to recirculate a negative declaration when the document must be substantially revised after public notice of its availability has previously been given, but prior to its adoption [CCR Title 14, Section 15073.5]. A “substantial revision” of the negative declaration shall mean:

A new, avoidable significant effect is identified and mitigation measures or project revisions must be added in order to reduce the effect to insignificance, or

The lead agency determines that the proposed mitigation measures or project revisions will not reduce potential effects to less than significance and new measures or revisions must be required. Recirculation is not required under the following circumstances:

  • Mitigation measures are replaced with equal or more effective measures.
  • New project revisions are added in response to written or verbal comments on the project’s effects identified in the proposed negative declaration which are not new avoidable significant effects.
  • Measures or conditions of project approval are added after circulation of new significant environmental effects and are not necessary to mitigate an avoidable significant effect.
  • New information is added to the negative declaration which merely clarifies, amplifies, or makes insignificant modifications to the negative declaration.

Consideration and Adoption of a Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration

Prior to approving a project, the decision-making body of the lead agency shall consider the proposed negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration together with any comments received during the public review process. The decision making body shall adopt the proposed negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration only if it finds on the basis of the whole record before it (including the initial study and any comments received), that there is no substantial evidence that the project will have a significant effect on the environment and that the negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration reflects the lead agency’s independent judgment and analysis [CCR Title 14, Section 15074].

When adopting a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration, the lead agency shall specify the location and custodian of the documents of other material which constitute the record of proceedings upon which its decision is based.

When adopting a mitigated negative declaration, the lead agency shall also adopt a program for reporting on or monitoring the changes which it has either required in the project or made a condition of approval to mitigate or avoid significant environmental effects.

Internal Review and Approval

QA/QC Review

  • Technical Specialist Review
  • Internal Peer Review
  • Supervisor Review
  • Technical Editor Review

Each district or region has developed its own quality control plan. QA/QC review for Initial Studies consists of four components. The first is a technical specialist review. This is in essence a review of the environmental document by the Project Development Team, including appropriate specialists and district units. The second is a peer review and should be performed by an associate or journey-level environmental planner/coordinator who is not directly involved with the project. The third review is a supervisor’s review of the document. The fourth review is a review by a technical editor.

QA/QC review should include all members of the Project Development Team!

In addition to readability, conciseness, focus on issues, and consistency, the reviewer should check for such things as format, content, clarity, and quality of exhibits, grammar, punctuation, and typographical errors. Some of these reviews may take place concurrently.

If requested by the District Environmental Office Chief, the "draft" IS may be submitted to the Headquarters Division of Environmental Analysis (DEA) Coordinator for a quality review.

Following the QA/QC review, the District will need to revise the "draft" IS as necessary to resolve any conflicting comments or other issues.

The "draft" IS must contain the unsigned proposed ND or proposed MND following the title sheet. The "draft" IS becomes part of the Draft Project Report. Once the Draft Project Report is assembled, it is submitted to the District Director (or designee) for signature.

Filing a Notice of Determination

Within five working days of approving a project for which it has approved a Negative Declaration or a Mitigated Negative Declaration, Caltrans must file a Notice of Determination (NOD) with the State Clearinghouse. (Filing with the county clerk of each involved county is optional.) The NOD must be signed by the Environmental Branch Chief and completed in full before the State Clearinghouse will post it. The Notice must also be sent to anyone previously requesting notice.

This notice starts a statute of limitation period and must contain enough information so that people can see whether the notice applies to the project with which they are concerned [CCR Title 14, Section 15075]. The Notice of Determination must include:

  • An identification of the project including its common name where possible, and its location.
  • A brief description of the project.
  • The date on which the agency approved the project.
  • The determination of the agency that the project will not have a significant effect on the environment.
  • A statement that a negative declaration or a mitigated negative declaration has been prepared pursuant to the provisions of CEQA.
  • The Address where a copy of the negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration may be examined.

Note: If Caltrans is issuing an encroachment permit and is serving as lead agency for the encroachment, the NOD must also include the identity of the person receiving the permit.

When filing the NOD with the State Clearinghouse, the district must submit proof of payment of an environmental filing fee to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) if the document identified any potential impacts on fish or wildlife resources (see Fish and Game Code Section 711.4). A check made out to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife must be sent to the State Clearinghouse when submitting the NOD. If the project will have no effect on fish and wildlife, the district can seek to have the fee waived by contacting the CDFW region in which the project is located, and obtaining CDFW's determination and documentation that the project is exempt from the fee. For further information, including current fees, please see the CEQA Environmental Document Filing Fees.

The State Clearinghouse cannot post a NOD without the required Fish and Wildlife filing fee or determination of fee exemption from CDFW. All notices filed pursuant to this section shall be available for public inspection and shall be posted for a period of at least 30 days, this starts the 30-day statute of limitations on court challenges to the approval under CEQA.

The NOD and the final ND or MND are submitted to the State Clearinghouse via CEQA Submit. Please see the State Clearinghouse CEQA Document Submission website for full instructions, forms, and a link to the CEQA Submit Database. The NOD and final ND or MND must also be posted on the appropriate Caltrans district/project website.

The payment of the CDFW filing fee (or determination of fee exemption from CDFW) is sent to:

State Clearinghouse
1400 Tenth Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

California Transportation Commission (CTC) submittal process

For projects requiring action by the California Transportation Commission (CTC) - i.e., approval of funds and/or new public road connection and/or route adoption - a submittal package must be sent to the Division of Environmental Analysis for forwarding to the CTC. Click here for the CTC submittal instructions.


(Last content update: 02/15/2022, JH)